Rock Solid

To walk through Orton Geological Museum is to walk though time—the Ordovician, Silurian, Devonian, and a few more geological ages. It is also to walk through the prehistory of Ohio and the history of Ohio State from its beginning.

Located on the Oval, landmark Orton Hall, named for Ohio State’s first president and first geology professor, Edward Orton, the museum’s first 10,000 specimens came from Orton’s own teaching collection.

Scattered throughout the massive collection are specimens numbered on the back by Orton himself, their numbers still vivid red after all these years. “We don’t know what he used; we just know that we can’t wash them,” Bill Ausich, earth sciences professor and museum director, said.

Fossil skeletons, meteorites, mastodon teeth, crystals, minerals, and fossils from Ohio and around the world, from Antarctica to Siberia, abound.

A replica of a Tyrannosaurus rex skull.

A replica of a Tyrannosaurus rex skull (the original is housed at the American Museum of Natural History in NYC)

Visitors are immediately greeted, or accosted, depending on the visitor’s frame of mind, by the 7-foot fossil skeleton of the giant ground sloth, Megalonyx jeffersoni, or “Jeff,” as he is affectionately known around Orton Hall.

While the collection is invaluable as source material for both teaching and research and is used by faculty and students on campus and off, it is the museum’s outreach efforts that set it apart from the other Arts and Sciences museums. It is the only one open to the public daily, 8 am – 5 pm, with the only gift shop.

Its curator, Dale Gnidovec, gives a staggering array of guided tours and talks. In 2010, the museum’s electronic counter told him that 12,264 people came through the heavy oak doors. Gnidovec personally gave tours to 47 groups that served 1,532 people—both adults and children.

The museum is a popular destination for school groups of all ages, along with Scouts—Boy, Girl, and Cub. Other special groups include retirement communities, metro park naturalists, teachers, and a diverse range of Ohio State classes, from civil engineering and biology to art and poetry.

Ausich said, “We bring the community to campus. Going out to the community is great, but this is more valuable. It shows kids what they can become and how they can fit in.”

“This is objective reality. I’m not a big fan of virtual museums. The thrill of putting a fossil in a child’s hand and watching that growing sense of wonder cannot be duplicated online.”

Both Ausich and Gnidovec offer a free fossil identification service and said, “We never know what we’re going to get. Lately, we’ve had a run of horse teeth.” “The best-ever,” Gnidovec said, “was the call I had from a woman who asked me to ID a rock over the phone. I asked, ‘What does it look like?’ ‘”Like a rock,’ she said. ‘What color is it?’ Well, it’s kind of rock-colored,’ she said.”

Dale Gnidovec and Bill Ausich.

Orton museum curator Dale Gnidovec (left) and Earth Sciences Professor and museum curator Bill Ausich

Additionally, Gnidovec gives talks and tours throughout the area, including a twice-yearly fossil tour at the Ohio Statehouse, which was built out of Columbus limestone complete with wonderful fossils.

“This is a fun place for kids and hobbyists, but good science is done here. We take care of all of these collections for the scientists who come after us,” Gnidovec said.

“It is first and foremost an invaluable and unparalleled research resource that is in constant use, available not only to our own faculty and students but to scientists around Ohio and across the globe,” Ausich said.

"But more than that, we are literally preserving pieces of the earth and have an archive for the future. We cannot anticipate questions scientists will be asking in the next century— we don’t even know yet what could be important."

“And we can’t even dream of what future techniques could be used for extracting information from fossils and rocks,” Gnidovec said. “But if we don’t have the collections, they can’t be studied.”

Learn more about the Orton Geological museum.

This is the third, and concluding, feature on the museums of the College of Arts and Sciences. Be sure to read the other two stories Behind Closed Doors and Revealing the Past. A gift to the Orton Museum Support Fund #308759 can help preserve this resource for future generations.